A key goal on the ranches is to improve the diversity and health of the landscape. Plants, soil and watershed are the three key pieces of this. We have a found a variety of techniques that help us establish native plants. We are fortunate on both the Bay Hill and Valley Ford ranch to have healthy areas of native vegetation that we can use as source material for our plantings.
We plant native plants that are adapted to reproducing and growing in our area. Our job is to support the native ability of the plant to reduce increase the probability that it will become established in a particular spot. We do this by planting, protecting and sometimes watering. We plant from seeds, cuttings, nursery pots, or transplants. We protect from weed competition, deer, cows, rodents, wind and sun with tree shelters, weed mats, fences, wire baskets, weeding and mowing. We irrigate to help plants establish their root systems and to help trees grow faster because we are impatient. When planting from nursery plants, we prefer small plants because it takes less water to support them as they establish their roots and we believe they will produce stronger plants over the long term. We use locally gathered seeds and plant material to preserve the genetic diversity of our area. We use managed grazing to support the seeds and genetic diversity in a our grasslands and do not generally try to plant grasses or forbs because they are very difficult to establish at any scale.
Grasslands generously feed grazing animals and in return the animals slow and prevent the spread of trees and shrubs by browsing, rubbing, girdling, trampling and eating roots. This balance has been disrupted by agriculture, logging, fire suppression, loss of large native plant eating animals and loss of predators. Our job is to influence this competition so we have a healthy and diverse population of trees and understory with the grasslands. An oak seedling might have a 1% chance of success and take 20 years to get above the deer browse height. If we protect it with a electric fence and a tree shelter, it might have a 50% chance of success and take 7 years to get above the browse height. In some areas we have too many trees and in other areas, we benefit from adding more trees in the grasslands.
For plants with large seeds like oak, buckeye and hazelnut we prefer to direct seed. For a larger seed like a buckeye or acorn, there is energy in the seed to send a root down deep quickly to help the plant get established. Direct seeding takes advantage of this ability to send the first roots deep into the soil. This ability is lost in a nursery pot. For plants with smaller seeds like redwoods, lilies and coffeeberry, we purchase plants or germinate seeds in a nursery and establish the plants in pots before planting.
Generally, I believe that smaller plants are better able to establish themselves with a minimal amount of irrigation. Although larger plants have more energy and resources to grow, they also have more leaves to support and may have difficulty getting enough water from the soil around a root system that was established in a nursery pot to support these leaves without a few seasons of irrigation. Another way to look at this is that an acorn can sink a deeper tap root with it’s first few leaves than a six foot oak tree planted from a pot.
Cuttings with easily rooting plants are the most cost effective way to plant. I have had good luck planting cuttings of willow, red dogwood and nine bark. Willows like a moist site with good soil. Irrigation is helpful but not required. Dogwood is similar but has a higher failure rate than willow. Cuttings of understory shrubs like ninebark work best if there are already some established trees like willows to provide some shade.
There is research that suggests more of our native shrubs are good candidates to plant directly from cuttings. In particular, we intend to experiment with twinberry, salmon berry, snow berry and coyote brush.
For plants like hazelnuts, twinberry, coyote bush, thimble berry and ferns, we will find an area on the ranch with an excess of young plants and do a bit of thinning or dividing to gather material that we can plant in areas that are lacking in native plants. We only do this when we think the benefit of establishing a new population will be high and the cost of removing a few individuals from an established population will be insignificant. It is a great affordable way to create new plantings while supporting the local genetic diversity. In particular, our Bay Hill Ranch has areas with very healthy native plant populations and other areas that has been heavily impacted by agriculture and eucalyptus so moving a few plants from the healthy areas to the an impoverished area is a big win.
Lumps of Sod
When doing gully repair and other watershed work, we sometimes have wet areas where the native water loving plants are gone. In this case, we will take shovels full of plants from a wet area with the soil and transplant the whole scoop to our restoration site. We typically transplant a chunk with a mix of rushes and sedges. Our goal is primarily to establish a seed bank in the new area without moving a lot of material. These wetland plants are very good and expanding and filling in holes if the growing conditions are right. Creeks and water ways normally experience significant disturbance and the abundence of water supports quick growth so the plants are adapted to this. These adaptations help the plants get established in the new area and help the small spots we borrow from heal quickly. Many of these plants will spread through rhizomes. This type of small transplant also brings along the seeds of a healthy soil ecosystem to the new area.
Trees and shrubs need protection from cattle and deer. Protection is most important when planting in an open area without other trees. Deer will home in and destroy a willow planting in an open area very quickly. They will remove the bark. Our preference is to plant near a permanent electric fence so we can quickly create an enclosure with fiberglass post and electric poly twine that connects to a permanent electric fence. With deer, a single nose high electric wire is fine. The key is to create a small enclosure so they will be afraid to jump over the wire into the area with the planting. A long narrow 3′ wide hedgerow with electric polywire on both sides works fine. It’s good to check the fence periodically when the deer are first learning about electric fence in case they knock it down. Alternately a single electric wire with wood posts is more resilient to occasional animal impacts, poly wire and fiberglass posts are much faster to install and easy to adjust or remove as the plantings become established.
When an electric fence is not nearby, you can install a solar powered electric charger for a planting area. For smaller plantings when the cost of a fence charger is too high, we will build an enclosure from livestock panels but this is expensive for anything beyond scattered tree plantings.
We have had gophers kill our oak seedlings. Even a 1″+ diameter young oak can be cut off at ground level by a gopher. A wire basket provides good protection but is expensive and labor intensive so we only use them around buildings where we are planting a few trees and want a high likelihood of success for each tree location.
All our planting are intended to thrive without irrigation but irrigation can be helpful in establishing a planting and helping trees grow more quickly. We use drip line with 12″ emitter spacing when establishing a hedge row or wind break. We have found that individual drip emitters on a tree seem to attract gophers and can be a death sentence for a tree. The water over a long row seems not attract rodents too much.
We create portable drip bottles by adding a drip emitter to a one gallon plastic water jug. This works well with small plants from a nursery pot that may need extra help to establish their roots in the first season or if we have a dry year. A gallon of water applied to a small plant in a tree shelter with a Vispore mat over a couple of hours can go a long way. Doing this a few times in the plant’s first summer season can greatly increase the success of a planting.
A Hedgerow Model
For us, a good hedgerow might start with willow and coyote brush to establish some cover and suppress grass competition. We would build on that with understory shrubs like ninebark, twinberry, snowberry, currant, gooseberry, thimbleberry, salmon berry, native blackberry, poison oak and hazelnut. Ferns, shade tolerant sedges, trillium, lilies and wild ginger can fill in under the shrubs. We think this bottom layer could have more diversity but this plant category has probably been most damaged by livestock. The understory layer is easiest to establish once the willows and coyote brush provide shade, weed control and wind protection. Oaks, madrone, redwood, douglas fir, elderberry and bay laurel are also good trees to mix in with the willow.
Native plants take time to grow, coast live oak seem to grow about a foot per year for us when they are happy. We have a few live oaks that are 15′ tall and have a six inch diameter trunk. Those are the big ones after 12-15 years and they make me smile. The deciduous black oak seems to be much slower. Willow grows very quickly. We have lots willows that are 20′ tall and one tall species is 30′. Buckeyes are quick in the first year and then tend to grow pretty slowly. Planting site can make a huge difference in the growth speed. Irrigation can also speed up growth.
- Willow – The ideal is to plant a healthy young straight 1″ diameter 3′ long stem. Harvest when the leaves have fallen and the soil is moist from rain and plant right away. Use a digging bar to create a pilot hole and try to get the cutting 12″ deep into the soil. You can encourage straight rapid young growth for harvesting by coppicing an established tree and coming back a year or two later but we usually look for trees that have fallen and are naturally disturbed for source material. Willow is forgiving so bent, forked or smaller cutting will also work. The key is to be able to get a decent portion of the cutting into the soil so it has a good start on forming a root system. In wet years, they do find without irrigation but irrigation will help them grow more quickly. With good soil and a good rain year, we have seen most of our willow cuttings establish themselves with no irrigation. Willows are more drought tolerant than you might think. They need riparian conditions to reproduce naturally from their tiny seeds but they can get established fine on good upland soils here at the coast and will drop leaves early to tolerate summer dryness once established. We find areas around our pond where unwanted willows establish themselves and have had good luck transplanting these young seedling with established root systems in the wet season. Deer love young willow cuttings. They will rub on them and strip the bark so deer protection is needed when planting willow in an open area.
- Dogwood – They can planted from cuttings like a willow but they need a bit better soil and a bit more moisture to do well. They also will do better if planted with some shade from existing willows.
- Ninebark – Ninebark establishes well from cuttings placed directly in the soils. Does best with partial shade.
- Oaks – Direct seed 3-5 nuts in a TubEx tree shelter. Place a vispore tree mat to preserve moisture and prevent weed competition. Gather some composted leaves from an established oak to inoculate the soil the new area with fungi that support oak trees. We have had excellent luck establishing oaks with no irrigation using this method. Some modest irrigation can be helpful in a dry year and increase the oak’s modest growth rate. Oaks like protection from browsing.
- Buckeye – Buckeye seedlings are too large for standard tree shelters so we tend to plant them without protection and plant more than we want in anticipation of a large loss percentage. Buckeye trees produce many seeds and they are very easy to plant.
- Pacific Coast Iris – This is a great candidate for transplants since the large mats won’t miss a shovelful or two and a small amount of source plant and spread a the new area.